It’s a tough time to be a warehouse operator. Many must contend with a dwindling labor supply while taking on skyrocketing demand brought about by the rise of e-commerce, making it tricky to capitalize on the influx of orders. But what if, rather than relying on the limited supply of skilled warehouse workers, an operator could eliminate the need for new hires entirely?
Fetch Robotics announced Wednesday a partnership with supply chain solution provider Körber to unveil a scalable case pick-to-pallet solution that can do exactly that. The collaboration will combine Fetch’s fleet of Freight500 and Freight1500 autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) with Körber’s optimized warehouse management system (WMS) to create an AMR-based, software-driven solution.
Picking up the pace
The warehouse order picking market has an estimated compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of over 10% from 2019 to 2025, and the order picking process is expected to account for more than half of warehouse operating costs. Warehouses must expand their operations to match this growth but also keep their operating costs in check. For Fetch and Körber, that growth is enabled by maximizing the productivity of each individual picker.
“Almost all of the conversations I have are about enabling growth, because those are the times we’re in. … I can project to you what your next five years are going to look like, and I can help you achieve that potential because I can amplify your workforce. It is a growth-enabling proposition,” Stefan Nusser, chief product officer at Fetch, told FreightWaves.
With a traditional case picking model, time that could be spent picking is wasted because pickers are made to travel long distances while dealing with congested, forklift-filled aisles. But Fetch and Körber’s solution optimizes the case picking process utilizing zone-based picking, aided by software-driven AMRs.
To deploy the solution, each picker is assigned one or two aisles. Meanwhile, Fetch’s AMRs are fed information from Körber’s WMS on the optimal pick paths for pallet construction. As the robots navigate the warehouse, pickers receive orders – either through RF scanners or a voice- or vision-based system – and place them on the AMR’s pallet before the next robot arrives in their zone. In this way, pickers are no longer spread thin – rather, they can stay in one zone, jointly constructing pallets while the WMS guides the AMRs along their paths.
“The scalability, in my mind, comes from the fact that you’re amplifying the productivity of the people,” said Nusser.
Cutting costs without cutting corners
With a boost in productivity also comes a reduction in costs. For one, with AMRs in place, a warehouse operator can scrap forklifts. That means there’s no need to spend capital on training and hiring skilled workers to operate them, and it also makes for a safer – and therefore cheaper – work environment.
“If you look at forklift statistics, they’re quite sobering. If you have 15 forklifts in your operation, statistically you’re going to have an injury once per year,” Nusser explained. “The average cost of one of these injuries is about $150,000, so both for the operator but also for the people that are in that workplace, the forklift has a trove of side effects.”
The shift away from forklifts can also boost productivity elsewhere. By having AMRs supplement the pickers, they’re freed up to work on other parts of the operation that would otherwise require warehouse operators to dip into a very shallow pool of labor.
“What we’re actually seeing in a lot of these environments where we’re deploying robots is a reduction in one portion of the workflow is translating to increased speed and reliance in other parts,” John Santagate, vice president of robotics at Körber, told FreightWaves. “So instead of having to go out and find new people – which comes at a cost – you redeploy those people.”
Built for change
But perhaps the greatest benefit of Fetch and Körber’s integrated solution is its flexibility to adapt to a changing workspace. In a system with static automation, changing the layout of a warehouse means spending massive amounts of time reprogramming automated pieces, but Fetch and Körber’s solution allows the AMR-based system to evolve alongside the operation.
“It is very straightforward to change and modify the solution as your footprint and as your demands change,” said Nusser. “So the nice thing, from my perspective, about an AMR-based, software-driven, optimized solution – relative to something that you’d do with fixed, infrastructure-based automation – is that you retain that flexibility.”
Unlike a traditional automated picking system, Fetch and Körber’s case pick-to-pallet solution can boost safety and efficiency while also allowing warehouse operators the flexibility to grow and change their operations as they see fit. And in a rapidly growing market, that’s exactly what they need to get ahead.